Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Sampling September: Fiction by men, part 2

Up Against the Night by Justin Cartwright Up Against the Night (27 August 2015) by Justin Cartwright

The premise: Originally from South Africa, Frank McAllister has made his fortune in England; meanwhile, his volatile cousin Jaco has become a minor YouTube celebrity and is involved with the Scientologist movement. When Frank returns to his home country and is drawn back into Jaco's life, he is 'drawn into a world of violence and delusion that will threaten the whole family.'
First line: From a distance, the Reverend Francis Owen, his wife, their servant, Jane Williams, and a twelve-year-old boy, William Wood, watched, helpless and terrified, as a thousand Zulu warriors fell on seventy unarmed Boers and beat them with clubs.
What I read: The prologue and chapters 1-3 (up to 12% in the ebook).
Would I read the rest of it? I approached this with some trepidation; for some reason, between adding it to my to-read list and reading the first few chapters I'd developed this impression that it was going to be really dull. So I was pleased to find it immediately absorbing. Up Against the Night is semi-autobiographical; Frank is a descendant of the Boer leader Piet Retief, as is the author. The first chapter sees him struggling with this legacy, his conviction that 'there is something rotten at the heart of the Retief story, at odds with the myth of heroism and sacrifice'. Frank's first-person narrative jumps from present to past as he recalls stories told by his aunt when he was a boy - this is where the cover image comes from, a memory of moths burning their wings in candlelight. Already there's a lot going on here to get interested in; I'll definitely be reading more.

Ghosting by Jonathan KempGhosting (12 March 2015) by Jonathan Kemp

The premise: At the start of Ghosting, Grace, a woman in her sixties, thinks she sees the ghost of her first husband. This triggers a series of long-buried memories, as she ruminates on her past. But... 'the ghost turns out to be very real: a charismatic young man named Luke. And as Grace gets to know him, she is jolted into an emotional awakening that brings her to a momentous decision.'
First line: It's just after nine am on a bright July morning when she first sees her dead husband.
What I read: Chapters 1-2 (20%).
Would I read the rest of it? Yes, I think so; I really like this so far, and it's very easy to read. The third-person narration is extremely simple and straightforward, stripped of any flowery language, and moves quickly through scenes from Grace's history. By chapter 2, the book has already covered, in flashbacks, the early development of Grace's relationship with Pete, her first husband, as well as the grim reality of their marriage. The ghost mentioned in the blurb hasn't actually turned up yet, though, which means I'm quite keen to read on at least far enough to see how that happens.

Alice and the Fly by James Rice Alice and the Fly (15 January 2015) by James Rice

The premise: The blurb doesn't give much away about the actual plot. It says: 'This is a book about phobias and obsessions, isolation and dark corners. It's about families, friendships, and carefully preserved secrets. But above everything else it's about love. Finding love - in any of its forms - and nurturing it.'
First line: The bus was late tonight. It was raining, that icy winter rain, the kind that stings.
What I read: Chapters 1-5 of part 1 (8%).
Would I read the rest of it? Since the blurb is so enigmatic, I'll flesh it out a bit here. The narrator is Greg, a troubled and bullied teenager who's terrified of something he only refers to as 'Them' (a mention of webs makes me think this might mean spiders, but it hasn't been made clear yet). The narrative is Greg's diary, written as if it is a letter addressed to Alice, a girl he has an obsessive crush on. The first chapter sees him take a going-nowhere, circular bus journey just so he can catch a glimpse of Alice. There's also some background on the setting - while Greg's home is in relatively affluent Skipdale, Alice lives in 'the Pitt', an impoverished, locally reviled area which is literally positioned in... well, a pit of sorts, at the bottom of a steep hill. All this worldbuilding is interesting, but Alice and the Fly feels overwhelmingly like a YA novel. This isn't necessarily a dealbreaker, but makes it much less likely I'll continue, and in this case I'm not especially enamoured of the characters.

Throughout September I'll be working through some of my 2015 to-read list, sampling the books and cataloguing my thoughts on each of them. Find all the posts in this series here!

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